An ongoing investigation at the University of Naples in Italy is looking into allegations that some studies of genetically modified crops included data that was manipulated to make it appear that the consumption of GMOs is harmful to mammals. Frederico Infascelli, the researcher who led these studies, claims that the allegations are false, but evidence has surfaced of widespread image manipulation in his work.
Genetically modified crops, more commonly known as genetically modified organisms or GMOs, have been engineered to make plants heartier in challenging environmental conditions, more resistant to pests or disease, or augmented for a better nutritional profile. Studies have found that GMOs can be effective in reducing the use of pesticides, increasing overall crop yield, and in increasing farmer’s profits. Some of the more common GMO crops include rapeseed, corn, cotton, papaya, soybeans, and beets.
In general, most scientists, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, concur that GMOs do not present an increased risk to human health relative to non-modified foods, though the growth and consumption of GMOs has been riddled with controversy. Partially in response to public concerns, some countries require foods using GMOs to be labeled as such.
In Italy, the debate on GMOs is often supported by the results of Italian studies that examine the consequences of GMO consumption. So these potentially fraudulent studies may have had an influence on policymaking in Italy.
Veterinary scientist Frederico Infascelli led these contested GMO experiments. The findings of his studies included conclusions that the ingestion of GMO-based crops influenced the chemical composition of a nursing goat’s milk and consequently affected the biology of the baby goat that drank this milk. This conclusion, if true, would certainly be alarming, as it would imply that portions of the modified DNA had remained undigested and may be altering the gene expression within a developing mammal.
However, this finding is not generally supported in the literature, and it now appears to have come from manipulation of this group’s experimental data.
The papers published by Infascelli’s included problematic images of DNA analysis. Some of the papers appear to have duplicate images that are captioned as presenting different data but actually portray the same information, as evidenced by unique visual artifacts in the images. Additionally, it appears that some data may have been selectively analyzed or destroyed in the DNA analysis process, which would surely have influenced the outcome of these experiments. In these cases, other researchers allege that the images were deliberately manipulated to show a desired result and to hide sample contamination.
In addition to these accusations of data tampering, one of the papers published by this group in the journal Food and Nutrition Sciences was recently retracted due to issues of self-plagiarism—the group copied something from another article that it had published. The journal’s editors, however, believe the results of the retracted paper are valid and that the self-plagiarism issue appeared to be an honest mistake and not a deliberate manipulation.
Most scientists are in agreement that GMOs are not harmful to consume in food and likely don’t have adverse consequences to humans who consume them. The papers published by Infascelli’s research group belong to a handful of studies that have presented GMOs as harmful to consumers. Though the investigation into these fraud allegations is ongoing, it is likely that this research has some serious problems. Whether that will undermine the already weak argument that GMOs are dangerous is uncertain.
While this has been going on, French anti-GMO advocate Gilles-Eric Seralini resurfaced. Seralini is most famous for having published a paper that claimed to show feeding rats GMO-based food led to a high incidence of cancer. But the paper suffered from so many statistical flaws that the journal eventually retracted it over the objections of its author.
Seralini is back with a study purportedly showing that GMO-based food is harmful to cows. But the journal he published it in allowed its domain registration to expire, meaning the paper (and every other one in the journal) has simply vanished.
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